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“Audio Never Goes Viral”… and maybe that’s a good thing

Stan Alcorn, a producer for WNYC (one of the leading lights of public radio in the US), has an excellent essay on titled “Why Audio Never Goes Viral”.

The title comes from a post on, the community newspaper of the Amerian public radio community, by Nate DiMeo. DiMeo is a brilliant freelance producer and the creator of “The Memory Palace”, a beautiful and bittersweet podcast about history and storytelling. At the end of an essay about the podcast and the financial struggles to support it, DiMeo offers this observation:

Audio never goes viral.

There’s something much more intentional about choosing to listen to something than choosing to click on a video or article. If you posted the most incredible story—literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.”

You can tell how maddening this is for DiMeo and for many other people creating innovative and important audio. We are in the midst of a moment of extreme creativity in the world of audio production. Podcasting has made it reasonably easy for a competent producer to share original audio with an audience of potentially millions, but generally, dozens, of listeners. Some of these podcasts are finding audiences on public radio through new distributors, like the Public Radio Exchange. But many aren’t. And while there are numerous stories of people who’ve become briefly, sometimes uncomfortably, famous through viral videos (a conference, ROFLCon, exists solely to examine the phenomenon of internet famous), there are very few examples of internet memes that are audio-only.

Alcorn examines this phenomenon structurally, considering the weaknesses in the audio ecosystem that make audio less likely to spread online than text or video. Audio is often something we encounter when we’re doing something else – driving, walking, working with our hands, cooking dinner. As a result, we’re less likely to remember to share that experience online. When we do share, we’re thwarted by the fact that audio is difficult to embed, tied up in different proprietary players. Unlike text, audio is hard to skim. And the “tastemakers” who are in the business of amplifying viral content don’t have a good source for potentially viral audio to audition and spread.

All these are good points. But I wonder if Alcorn and DiMeo are limiting the conversation by focusing on “going viral”. For DiMeo, the failure of audio to go viral is part of a larger phenomenon, that high-quality audio storytelling doesn’t receive the audience it deserves and that the small size of the audience means that it’s exceedingly hard to make a living. DiMeo, in his Transom piece, explains that he’s had book offers that didn’t pan out because he is insufficiently famous – “going viral”, which is a form of unexpected (and sometimes unwanted) fame is something that would be deeply helpful to his career.

But “going viral” is a phenomenon built on passing on content that requires little investment by the viewer. It takes a few seconds to realize that something interesting is going on in the “Harlem Shake”, and if that’s your thing, you might spend a few minutes more finding different versions of the video, perhaps going further to read critiques of the video or the appropriation of the song and dance. But the whole experience is no more than a glance.

Glance-based media is perfect for a world where we’re inundated with choices and forced to make up our mind very quickly. But, as Alcorn argues, it’s hard to glance at audio – by its very definition, audio takes time.

But that may be why audio is so important in a viral age.

The first assignment I ask my students in News and Participatory Media to complete is a media diary, tracking everything they read, watch and listen to over the course of a week. It’s a helpful assignment, shocking the career journalists into the realization that most college students never read print media. I ask students to track not only what mediums they encounter, but what kinds of stories, and to think about whether they were following up on existing interests or learning about new topics.

What’s been most surprising to me is that many participants list radio or podcasts where they get the most international news, and where they get the most unexpected and surprising news over the course of the week. Often, this is because people are listening when they’re doing other tasks. While DiMeo is concerned that it’s harder to get audiences to choose to listen rather than choose to watch or read, I’m seeing evidence that audio is most powerful when choice is not involved.

If you’re working with your hands or driving, there’s a high switching cost involved with being selective about radio or podcast programming – I have to be really uninterested in an NPR story to start searching around the airwaves for an alternative when I’m driving. As a result, I listen to far more stories on subjects I have no explicit interest in on the radio, and often, I discover that I’m interested in a topic I previously knew nothing about.

Radio is a serendipity engine precisely because it downplays choice. Had I turned off Morning Edition when I got bored with a story about the US auto industry, I never would have heard the story about the Ukranian protests that I hadn’t known I was interested in. Viral videos work because I choose to watch and choose to forward – radio works because I don’t choose, and because I’m rewarded for my lack of choice.

When I wrote about serendipity in Rewire, my friend David Weinberger wondered whether serendipity was simply a function of good writing: you end up reading lots of articles on topics you’re not explicitly interested in when you read The New Yorker or Granta. You’ve made the choice of the publication, but not of the content, and you’re along for the ride based on the quality of the writing. I think podcasts are like that – I frequently have no interest in the topics Roman Mars explores on 99% Invisible, but I value his storytelling, and I’m along for the ride.

I don’t think Nate DiMeo wants to be viral – I think he wants to be heard. There’s a need for media that creates serendipity, even if that need isn’t well understood and is far from well met by the market. Alcorn is right that we need to consider the environment for sharing audio, but I think we’d benefit from examining the ways people share long-form readings, a closer analogy to podcasts in the great battle for attention. Audio content would benefit greatly from Instapaper’s “read later” functionality, and from a Longreads that compiled great stories from live radio and podcasts for those who’ve got time to explore.

We need to find better ways of supporting long form media, media that encourages serendipity, media that asks that you give up some choice in exchange for unexpected discovery. We need ways for producers like DiMeo to find audiences who can support their work. But I would hate to see audio producers give up what they do well in search of virality. At its best, audio has a way of blindsiding you, of helping you discover that you are deeply invested in a story you thought you were only half listening to, of changing your life in a small, subtle way by introducing a stray and unexpected thought.

I read Alcorn’s piece in a burger joint in Portsmouth, New Hampshire last night, on Instapaper, on my phone. Walking back to the hotel, I decided to catch up on Nate DiMeo’s work on The Memory Palace and turned to an old episode on my phone, “Heard Once”. I’d heard it once before, but again, walking by the water with the wind whipping my scarf around, I was blindsided again. It’s a story about Jenny Lind, a musician I have never given more than a moment’s thought to, but the story is about so much more.

It’s eight minutes. It may never go viral, but it’s one of the best things I’ve ever heard. Please listen and see if it changes your life in a small way.

Jen Pahlka and Clay Shirky at Code for America Summit

I’m at Code for America’s 2013 summit in San Francisco today, an impressive gathering put together by an extremely impressive civic innovation organization. I’m one of the advisors to Code for All, a sister project to Code for America led by Catherine Bracy, old friend from the Berkman Center, and was able to meet the first Code for All partners from Jamaica, Germany and Mexico at CfA’s amazing headquarters yesterday.

Code for America has done something pretty astounding. They’ve found a way to bring geeks into local governments to build innovative new projects in a way that’s fiscally sustainable. They’ve got support from the governments who host these geeks and from the central players in the US tech economy, and they’ve emerged as a central organizing node for the government innovation community.

Jen Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, opens her remarks with the classic Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world” quote, and admits that she never got her degree in anthropology because the classes were too early in the morning. She notes that many people working on civic change feel like they are a small group, though we’re able to come together into a movement today. She hopes that this isn’t a movement of sameness, but of diversity, which sometimes creates conflict and chaos. When we come together, we get new applications and APIs, but more importantly, we get a community and a common mission.

The common beliefs of this group include the idea that government can work of the people, by the people and for the people, even in the 21st century. We have in common the idea that we can do things better together. Code for America welcomes anyone who has these values, and – and here she emphasizes her words very carefully – are doing something. Code for America is a reaction to Tim O’Reilly’s injunction to the tech industry to “work on stuff that matters”. CfA, she tells us, works on the stuff that matters the most.

Jen is supposed to be working as deputy CTO under Todd Park in the White House on a yearlong break from the organization… though she’s on furlough at the moment. She explains her decision to move into government for a year by explaining how inspired she is by people working in government. “In order to honor all of you – all the public servants in government and the fellows to work with them – I felt like I could not pass up this experience.”

Answering the inevitable question: “How’s it going in DC?”, she answers that it’s both deeply rewarding and the hardest thing she’s ever done, including starting Code for America. She offers warm thanks to Bob Sofman and Abhi Nemani who’ve been leading the organization during her year off.

Clay Shirky start his talk at the Code for America summit with some internet history:

Larry Sanger is an epistemologist, hired into one of the few epistemology jobs, working on Nupedia, a new encyclopedia working with experts to build a carefully fact-checked new encyclopedia. Nine months into Nupedia, they’ve created about a dozen articles. Sanger realizes this isn’t working and goes to Jimmy Wales, the guy who hired him, and suggests using Ward Cunningham’s wiki software. Wikipedia is born and the rest is history – in weeks, it outpaces Nupedia and Nupedia rapidly shuts down.

Patrick McConlogue, a New York city entrepreneur who works at Kickass Capital, caught sight of a homeless guy on the streets of New York and proposes teaching him to program as a way of addressing the problem of “the unjustly homeless”. McConlogue never bothered to learn the homeless guy’s name, and the details of the story led to ferocious online criticism of McConlogue’s plans to teach a homeless man to program. In the criticism of McConlogue, Shirky was struck by the idea that tech startups encourage thinking that doesn’t consider limitations and constraints, which might be appropriate for the tech industry, but doesn’t work well in the social change space.

This sounded wrong to Shirky, who started re-reading the comments through this lens, looking both at the criticisms of McConlogue’s idea and the voluminous criticism of Leo, the homeless guy, for being homeless. Matt Yglesias was similarly skeptical, but looked at possible solutions: how do we address homelessness, which begins with looking for ways to create affordable housing. Clay draws a distinction between this sort of helpful criticism – which was very harsh to McConlogue’s approach, but ultimately helpful – and corrosive criticism, which doesn’t make you smarter but just tries to get you to stop looking at the problem.

Clay notes that he’s lived through two sorting out times: the question of whether the web would be important, and questions of whether social media would spread. In these periods of sorting out, technology looks like a solution in search of a problem, because at that point it is. Over time, we find answers to the question – will it work? will it scale – and it ultimately does. Clay suggests that we’re now at that point with civic media. We need to listen to the helpful critics, and we need to stop listening to the corrosive ones so we can keep moving forward.

“If you want to feel like a genius, go to a place where people are doing something new and predict that they’ll fail. You’ll almost always get it right. It’s a cheap high.” There’s a great deal of space between “nothing will work” and “almost nothing will work”. The easiest problems to take on, Clay tells us, are pure technical problems where you just need information. It’s not an accident that applications to report potholes are the great success story in this space – there’s no pothole lobby. Potholes are projects and they have solutions.

One step up from technical problems are managerial problems. In starting a bike sharing program in New York, the organizers posted a map and asked people to request bike stations. The resulting map, where everyone requested a station outside their homes, was a rhetorical document that helped build support for the program. Managerial problems don’t just solve technical problems – they have to do with building support and constituencies for solutions. And then there are political problems.

It is not possible to imagine a city without prostitutes, Clay tells us. People don’t agree what the goal is when they address prostitution. Some people want sex work to stop and some people want it to be a better job. At the political level, you’re not dealing with problems – you’re dealing with dilemmas and you only have tradeoffs, not solutions.

When people want to distract you, Clay tells us, they tell you the problem you’re working on is not the real problem. “Don’t work on potholes – work on traffic flow citywide.” Work at that scale and you’ll get criticized for not working on something concrete and achievable because you can always find a way to criticize a project’s scale.

Clay urges us to understand that the most important resource we’ve got is our own ability to change our minds. As he got on the plane to come to San Francisco, he learned that Leo, the homeless guy with the javascript books, got arrested for sleeping in the park. McConlogue saw that Leo had been arrested and has tried to bail them out of jail. Clay argues that McConlogue has turned from someone who characterizes people as “justly homeless” to someone who tries to bail a homeless man out of jail. Whether or not he will end up being a fairy godfather to Leo, or forgetting about this project soon, McConlogue would not have learned what he’s learned without starting with the wrong idea and testing it in the world.

The possibility of learning as you go is the potential of the people in this room, Clay tells us. We can’t find major solutions by planning better or by starting an endless series of unconferences and hackathons: hackathons don’t produce running code, but better understanding of problems and better social capital. In the internet community, we’ve all thought through Nupedia and we think we understand how it ground to a halt through bureaucracy. But many of us fail to understand that the people who made Nupedia fail were the people who make Wikipedia succeed, the same folks who’d been building Nupedia. Wikipedia was a plan B.

When you build a prototype, you’re building up your understanding of the process. When you build a prototype, you’re not solving the client’s problem – you’re often showing show the client that they don’t understand the problem, as people often don’t tell you what they need until you can show them something that is concretely wrong. If we can commit to working on problems before discovering at first that we’re wrong, we can take on the most challenging problems that face us.

Saving the News with Advocacy Journalism: ten minutes with the Nieman Foundation

It’s the 75th anniversary of the Nieman Foundation, and the Harvard-based program is bringing back generations of its fellows, mid-career journalists brought to Cambridge to study for a year, back to honor and celebrate the institution. One of the events on the program is the “Ninety Minute Nieman”, where organizers have invited a set of Cambridge-based professors to offer a taste of what happens in their classes in 10 minutes each. (7 professors, 10 minute lectures + the inevitable shuffling of papers = a 90 minute Nieman.)

I’m lucky enough to be one of those presenters. My friends at Nieman encouraged me to be provocative, as that’s the role I seem to have every year when I come and talk to new Nieman fellows. As someone with no experience in conventional newsrooms (save the summer I was the sports reporter for the Lewisboro Ledger at age 16) and as the co-founder of a global citizen media project, I tend to embody the anxieties and fears some mid-career journalists hold when they spend a year considering the future of their profession.

So why fight it? I decided to use my time on stage to make an argument I passionately believe: that journalism needs to help people be effective and engaged civic actors, and if it doesn’t, it shouldn’t expect to survive financially or in terms of influence. In the event that I’m struck by a flying shoe thrown by a journalist or editor in the audience and laid low, I’ve posted the text of what I hope to say.

I teach a class at MIT’s Media Lab called “News and Participatory Media” that’s become popular with Nieman scholars. I designed it as a class for engineers and software developers – the sorts of folks we expect to find at the Media Lab – with the goal of exposing them to different reporting problems so they understand some of the challenges journalists face, before working to build new tools for use in traditional and non-traditional newsrooms. Nieman fellows find it interesting, I think, because it exposes them both to different ways to think about reporting, and to students who think about news very differently. This leads to some interesting collaborations: a business reporter for one of Nigeria’s most prominent newspapers sought out one of my doctoral students for help scraping UK property databases to identify assets owned by kleptocratic Nigerian governors. We have a pretty good time.

Because the class includes reporters, who tend to be very passionate about the future of journalism, and geeks, who tend to be very passionate about social media and pretty skeptical about the current state of journalism, we have some interesting arguments over the course of a semester. I enjoy stoking these arguments, so I often bring in provocations to get us started. Which led me to bring in a remarkable column from Swiss novelist Rolf Dobelli.

Dobelli was pitching a new book, “The Art of Thinking Clearly” – which purports to use neuroscientific and cognitive science research to explain why it’s so hard to think clearly, and thinking as clearly as I can muster, I can’t recommend the book. But there’s one section, which was excerpted in The Guardian, titled “News is Bad for You” that’s a very worthwhile read. Dobelli claims that he gave up reading news four years ago and is a happier man for it: he describes news as a drug, a time-wasting habit that gives us the brief sense that we’re doing something productive and positive, but actually breaks our focus and distracts us while failing to explain the world in deep and meaningful ways or give us anything we, as readers, can do about what we read.

I figured this would spark a great conversation in our class: who would rise to defend the importance of staying informed in order to be an effective civic actor? To my great surprise, most of the class – the hacks and the hackers – were in agreement that Dobelli was more right than wrong. In part, this is because we all agreed that there’s a lot of badly written news out there – news that provides little background or context – and several of Dobelli’s critiques call out decontextualized, shallow. But the idea that had the most resonance for the class, and for me, was this: news is seldom connected to decisions we have to make as individuals, and that consuming news about situations we can’t influence will ultimately instill a sense of learned helplessness.

This is a particularly tricky argument for me, as my schtick for the past decade has been to argue that Americans need more information about the rest of the world. I just wrote a book that makes the case that we should rewire both news and social media to help us get a more cosmopolitan view of the world, so we can find connection and inspiration and solve global problems. But Dobelli has a point: the stories I’ve been trying to get Americans to pay attention to through Global Voices – repression and rebellion in Sudan, revolution in Tunisia, the rise of an African middle class – aren’t stories where readers have much agency. And part of the reason it’s so damned hard to get people to pay attention to events and voices that are geographically far away is that people rightly ask, “Why does this matter to me? Is this going to change how I work? How I shop? Even how I vote?” And the answer is, “probably not”.

I thought of Dobelli’s questions this summer, when I read Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen. Schudson argues that the expectation for what a good citizen of America does has changed as our country has changed. In the post-independence period, the good citizen elected voted to elect the worthiest members of society to represent them – it was democracy by assent, largely noncompetitive. In the 19th century, good citizens were members of political parties not because of ideology, but largely because of personal and professional ties, and those parties, while competitive, competed on personality and organization, not on issues

Citizenship as many of us think about it is a product of the progressive era, Schudson argues. To overcome the party machines, progressives promoted the model of the informed citizen model, where muckraking newspapers uncovered malfeasance, where newspapers and magazines informed citizens on the issues of the day, where informed voters didn’t just elect representatives but voted directly on legislation through the ballot initiative process.

Schudson has at least two issues with the model of the informed citizen – he thinks it’s aspirational at best and farcical at worst, and he thinks its time passed somewhere around the 1960s. It’s impossible for a citizen to be informed on the range of issues that affect society – here he’s echoing some of Walter Lippman’s concerns from “Public Opinion” – and that’s not how the vast majority of us vote. And, he argues, since the 1960s, civic engagement that’s focused on making lasting change has focused on the courts, not on the ballot box – we’ve got a model of citizenship where lawsuits to establish rights and regulatory agencies that protect them are where much of the work of citizenship gets done

What I find helpful about Schudson’s argument is not his vision of rights-based citizenship, but the idea that the shape of citizenship can change over time. I think we’re experiencing one of those changes – I think we’re seeing a new form of civics that focuses on agency, on participation, and on trying to make an impact even at a very small scale.

It’s a version of citizenship that’s suspicious of opaque systems and institutions and is highly focused on seeing where effort and money goes – think of Kiva, which encourages people to loan money directly to developing world entrepreneurs, or Donors Choose, where people give to specific schools in need. Think of crowdfunding, where people support individual pieces of art they want to see made, rather than supporting arts institutions. Think of people who are politically engaged in campaigns on single issues – to arrest George Zimmerman or Joseph Kony – rather than to elect a party or a person. This is a version of citizenship that’s highly personal, highly decentralized, pointillist rather that sweeping in scope. It’s a vision of citizenship consistent with the changes we’ve seen with media, where everyone is creating media, whether it’s a Facebook update for friends or a blogpost that acts as an oped.

And just as we’ve discovered how difficult it is to navigate news and media in this space – how do we triangulate reports on Twitter and Facebook and government statements in a crisis like the Westgate mall attacks, especially when it turns out that official government sources are often less accurate than citizen sources – we’re discovering that it’s really hard to navigate this civic space. When tens of millions of American teens suddenly start demanding that the US put military forces in Uganda to arrest a warlord in the Central Africa Republic, do we treat this as a teen fad or as a serious policy concern? Do we use this as a chance to bring Ugandan voices into the dialog, or do we focus on the personal story of Jason Russell and his nervous breakdown? The KONY 2012 campaign gained an enormous amount of attention and, for a few weeks, shifted public debate – we need help figuring out whether it had impact, a question we should be asking both of campaigns that seek change by marshaling attention, and of journalism as a whole: what’s the civic impact?

This is a place where the news can help. We’re seeing a generation that’s not apathetic – they’re desperate to have impact. When we see them shying away from party politics, it’s not because they’re selfish or self-obsessed, it’s because they have a very hard time seeing how writing to their congressperson is going to change anything when congress lurches from shutdown to shutdown and passes historically few laws. People want to have impact, and the news can help.

We can help people understand where and how they can have impact. We can build on what David Bornstein is calling solutions journalism, featuring not just problems but the people and organizations trying to solve them – and we can do this in a way that probes at whether the solutions are as good as promised. We can link news stories to groups and campaigns trying to address the issues in those stories, as the Christian Science Monitor is doing in partnership with Shoutabout on their DC Decoder section. When we report on a crisis like Superstorm Sandy, we’re unafraid to drive readers to the Red Cross to help out – when my publication Global Voices reports on Kenya, we can point to ways people can help in the wake of the Westgate shooting, whether that’s to groups providing assistance to families, or to civil rights organizations now organizing to protect Kenya’s Somali population against an inevitable backlash.

What we cannot do is keep reporting news that keeps our readers informed but ineffective. There’s just too much else for them to pay attention to, whether it’s entertainment content or self-reinforcing, comfortable, partisan opinion. We’re losing the news not just because the financial models have changed, but because the civic models have changed. I doubt there’s a person in this room who got into the business for the money – everyone I know is motivated by a vision of public service. I worry that we’re failing to do public service because the way the public participates has changed. If we’re stuck in a paradigm where we inform citizens, then declare our work done, we’re failing in our public service duties.

By now, there’s any number of people in the audience waiting to ask the question, “Isn’t this advocacy journalism?” Since our forum doesn’t let you ask questions, let me go ahead and answer that for you: hell yes. And we should get used to it, because we’re all already doing advocacy journalism. Now that it’s incredibly easy to produce and disseminate information, what’s scarce is attention. Whenever we make a news judgement to put a story on our front page or deep inside our papers or sites, when we decide to cover a story in Malawi or in Mattapan, we’re doing advocacy journalism. We’re a part of a complicated ecosystem where everyone – activists promoting a cause, companies promoting a product, reporters delivering news – are competing for attention, and news organizations are very powerful actors within that system.

We’re advocating for the idea that what we’re covering is worth someone’s attention, and is worth more attention that something we’ve chosen not to cover. What Laura and Chris Amico have done with Homicide Watch is advocacy journalism at its very best – they advocate for the idea that everyone killed in DC or Chicago deserves to be reported on, whether they were black or white, rich or poor. When Godwin Nnanna reports on Nigerian governors buying mansions in Mayfair with money looted from Nigeria’s treasury, he’s committing advocacy journalism, just as he should, demanding that kleptocrats be held responsible for their crimes. When the Guardian puts Glen Greenwald on the front page, asking hard questions about government surveillance gone mad, it’s most certainly advocacy journalism and it’s advocacy journalism that we need if we want journalism to survive in the face of unconstitutional actions that changed forever our ability to assure sources that their identities will remain confidential and that they can talk to the press without fear of losing their jobs.

The problem isn’t journalism that advocates – it’s journalism that advocates a sadly limited set of options: vote for this guy or for that guy. We need journalism that helps us understand how we can participate and be effective, whether it’s through an election, a petition, a boycott, a new business model or technology. We need to ask whether our stories are teaching our readers to be helpless, or helping them become effective citizens.

My goal in teaching is to help my students see things from a different perspective, whether or not they end up agreeing with me – I aim to provoke more than persuade and hope I’ve done the former if not the latter. Please keep sending me Niemans.

Long tail audiobooks – a thought experiment

Because I have a long commute, I listen to a lot of audio: public radio, podcasts and audiobooks. Because I work in academe, I have a massive pile of books and papers I need to read: books by friends, books for research projects, classics in the field that I should have read at this point in my life. Unfortunately, there is near zero overlap between the listening I do and the reading I need to do.

For example, right now I’m reading Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice and Loyalty“. I’m listening to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and while it’s very enjoyable, it’s not really what I need to be reading right now. What I need is a business, a collective or a method that makes and distributes high quality recordings of books that are too obscure to become audiobooks through normal channels, but popular enough that they have a non-zero audience.

I’ve been thinking about this because I spent part of this month recording the audiobook for Rewire. I am very fortunate that Audible purchased audio rights to the book from my publisher, and even more fortunate that Audible was willing to let me record the book, which has given me some insight into the process and the costs involved.

Rewire will end up being about 11 hours of audio, and it took me roughly 19 hours of studio time to record it. Readers get paid (very modestly, in my case, as I’m a novice reader.) The audio engineer who patiently followed along, prompting me to re-record sentences I screwed up needs to get paid, as do the engineers at Audible who edit out my breaths and other auditory detritus. I’m going to guess that a setup involving a reader, an engineer and a post-processing engineer costs at minimum $300 per hour of finished audio – with a professional reader and more editing, this figure could be much, much higher. (If you work in this space and have a better cost estimate, please share it in the comments.)

If my estimate is right, I could – in theory – hire a team to record Hirschman’s slim volume for $2000 or so, for my exclusive personal use. But that’s not very cost effective: at that price, it’s a better deal for me to hire a driver for one of my commutes between Pittsfield and Cambridge and spend the time reading the book. But there’s surely dozens of others out there interested in reading Hirschman since Malcolm Gladwell lavished praise on him in a recent New Yorker piece. If I can find 99 others, we could – in theory – hear Hirschman for $20 each.

There’s a rub, of course – I don’t have the rights to Hirschman’s work. That might or might not matter if I hired someone to read it to me, but it would certainly matter if I started selling a reading of Hirschman’s book to others. I wonder if this might be a surmountable problem for “long tail” books, which are unlikely to be made into audio books otherwise. If we added a royalty payment for copies sold of the Hirschman audiobook, paid to a publisher, is it possible we could build a model that’s both feasible and legal for organizing adhoc recordings of books?

Here’s how I think it could work. I’d post my request for Hirschman’s book to our site, and ask others to join with me. We’d each commit at least $20 to ensure we got a copy of the recording, and we could commit more if we really, really wanted the book read. If we reached critical mass, say 110 readers, we’d use the money to pay a reader and engineer and provide a royalty to the publisher. If we fell short of the goal within a certain timeline, we’d invoke the punk rock/DIY option – those who had committed to the project would be asked if they wanted to record a chapter of the book and we’d submit and compile our chapters into a lower quality, but serviceable audiobook.

I’m not actually in a position to launch this project – remember, I’m the guy who doesn’t have time to read a 130 page book and needs it read to him. But I’d be very interested to hear if someone’s already doing a business like this, or whether anyone would be interested in starting a business like this. I’m less interested in hearing that I can just use text to speech on my computer and that should be completely satisfactory – it’s not, I’ve tried – or that I should find a way to access books recorded for the blind (IP issues in that industry are very complicated and having sighted people access those works could screw things up for blind readers.) I’m particularly interested in hearing from people in the publishing industry about whether there are presses that would find this a satisfactory solution, or whether any rightminded publisher would stop a project like this in its tracks. Oh, and if you’ve a better name than Long Tail Audiobooks, post that as well…

What We Watch: a new tool for watching how popular videos spread online

More than a billion people a month visit YouTube to watch videos.

Sometimes, those billion people watch the same video. More often, they don’t.

YouTube shares information about what videos are popular in different cities and different countries, and for the US, offers a tool to see what videos are popular with different age groups and genders.

We were interested in seeing what videos were popular in different countries, and especially, what videos were popular in more than one country. For the past six months, we’ve gathered data from YouTube to understand What We Watch. The videos we feature are videos that appear on YouTube’s Trends dashboard. These are the videos trending in any of 61 countries – they are not necessarily the most popular of all time, or even most popular that month, but they are receiving a lot of attention in a short period of time. (Gilad Lotan’s explanation of trending topics on Twitter is useful for understanding that distinction.)

What We Watch screenshot

What We Watch is a browser for popular YouTube videos, built by Ed Platt, Rahul Bhargava and Ethan Zuckerman at MIT’s Center for Civic Media. (Rahul did data acquisition, Ed did visualization and Ethan waved his hands and requested features inappropriately late in the design process.)

Click on a country, and you’ll get a list of videos that have trended in that country, and a map that shows other countries that watch the same videos. Click a tab, and you can see videos popular just in that country, and not in other countries. Click on a second country, and you’ll see what top videos the countries have in common. Click a video itself, and you’ll get the video itself and a map of the countries where it was popular.

The results are often surprising. The US has more trending videos in common with Germany and the Netherlands than with near neighbors Canada and Mexico. One of the US’s top videos is a Punjabi music video that’s also got an audience in India and Germany. And a 90 second ad for Google Hangouts is surprisingly popular around the world… though hasn’t trended in the US, it’s apparent target market.

While What We Watch is a fun way to navigate the wealth of content available on YouTube, there are serious research questions behind the project as well. In Rewire, I argue that a network that connects computers throughout the globe doesn’t guarantee that content – like videos – will spread across borders of language, culture and nation. Some of what we’re finding on What We Watch supports that contention, and some challenges it.

The music video for “Roar” by Katy Perry offers evidence that some videos find truly global audiences – the video is has trended from Peru to the Philippines, and one of the top videos in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Other videos find regional, but not global audiences – take P-Square’s “Personally”, which was in the top 10 in Nigeria for 17% of dates we tracked, and is popular in Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, and Senegal… but no where outside of sub-Saharan Africa. And some videos never leave home: Brazil’s top trending video, a humorous ad for a phone company that requires no translation, doesn’t show up on the top charts for any other country.

I’ve been deeply influenced by Pippa Norris’s work on the spread of culture and values across national borders, specifically her book “Cosmopolitan Communications” with Ronald Inglehart. They argue that people tend to overestimate the Katy Perry effect in which US culture sweeps the globe, leveling everything in its path. In some cases, people encounter another culture and reject it violently (the Taliban model), shape it and incorporate it into a new hybrid (the curry model) or simply decide it’s not for them (the firewall theory.) We see evidence for three of the four in our data – it’s hard to see the Taliban model because violent rejection would likely mean banning YouTube, which gives us no data to measure.

We also get some hints on what countries have videos in common. Language matters: countries in Latin America tend to have videos in common with other Spanish-speaking countries. But Brazil and Portugal don’t share much content (and Brazil’s viewing habits have little overlap with anyone, offering another theory: if you have a big enough domestic internet, you may develop your own, insular internet culture, as in Japan as well.)

We got very interested in countries that share content with lots of other countries. To identify these countries, we used a metric called “betweenness centrality“. Imagine the countries as nodes on a graph, connected by links that represent videos in common. If you calculate paths from each node of the graph to each other, nodes that many paths move through have high betweenness centrality – they are bridges through the network.

The countries with highest betweenness centrality are United Arab Emirates and Singapore. Both have lots of weak ties to other countries, which means they may act as cultural bridges between unconnected countries – we can imagine a video popular in India making its way to Yemen through the United Arab Emirates. It’s interesting to note that Singapore and UAE both have massive populations of expatriates and “guest workers” (over 90% of the population in UAE and over 40% in Singapore). Culture travels with people, and it’s no surprise that Indians in the UAE would want to watch videos from home, or that Poles living in the UK mean there are Polish-language videos in the UK’s top ten.

What we don’t know yet is whether videos spread through the networks: i.e., does a video made in India spread to Yemen through UAE, for example? To test that, we’ll need to watch how a popular video spreads over time, and, ideally, we’d want to know where a video originates. That’s harder than you might think. We’ve looked at the possibility of hand-coding the videos as to their nation of origin, so we can see whether a UK video might appear on the charts first in Australia or Poland. But we’re flummoxed by the fact that many of the popular videos aren’t easily pinned down to one nation or another – take this ad, popular in both Russia and Ukraine. It’s a Nike ad about street soccer, which suggests we should attribute it to the US, where the company is based… but the ad’s in Russian, clearly aimed at urban audiences in Eastern Europe and not for a US market. Do we code it as US, Russian or global?

And then, of course, there’s this ad for Google Hangouts. It’s a sweet and sappy 90 second story about a girl who moves to the big city and stays in touch with her dad via Hangouts. The accents are American and it appears to be an ad designed for the US market, but it has trended around the world, including in many countries with high rates of emigration for work or education. Google may have wanted to encourage American twenty-somethings to connect with their parents, but the message seems to resonate for people around the world.

Please experiment with What We Watch and let us know what you think – you can post comments here about anything interesting you discover, or research questions you think we should ask. The code and data behind the system is available on GitHub should you wish to build your own, or to see what we did. One caution for researchers – we are not showing videos that have been taken down by Google, for copyright or other reasons. In some cases, this means we’re removing many videos from top lists. We hope, in the long run, to show the metadata of those videos, but for now, they’re just not in the set, which means the data is not entirely representative of what we’ve collected.

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